Enforcement Discretion and Executive Duty
99 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2013 Last revised: 20 May 2014
Date Written: April 6, 2014
Recent Presidents have claimed wide-ranging authority to decline enforcement of federal laws. The Obama Administration, for example, has announced policies of abstaining from investigation and prosecution of certain federal marijuana crimes, postponing enforcement of key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and suspending enforcement of removal statutes against certain undocumented immigrants. While these examples highlight how exercises of executive enforcement discretion — the authority to turn a blind eye to legal violations — may effectively reshape federal policy, prior scholarship has offered no satisfactory account of the proper scope of, and constitutional basis for, this putative executive authority. This Article fills that gap.
Through close examination of the Constitution’s text, structure, and normative underpinnings, as well as relevant historical practice, this Article demonstrates that constitutional authority for enforcement discretion exists — but it is both limited and defeasible. Presidents may properly decline to enforce civil and criminal prohibitions in particular cases, notwithstanding their obligation under the Take Care Clause to ensure that “the Laws be faithfully executed.” Congress also may expand the scope of executive enforcement discretion by authorizing broader nonenforcement. But absent such congressional authorization, the President’s nonenforcement authority extends neither to prospective licensing of prohibited conduct nor to policy-based nonenforcement of federal laws for entire categories of offenders. Presuming such forms of executive discretion would collide with another deeply rooted constitutional tradition: the principle that American Presidents, unlike English kings, lack authority to suspend statutes or grant dispensations that prospectively excuse legal violations. This framework not only clarifies the proper executive duty with respect to enforcement of federal statutes but also points the way to proper resolution of other recurrent separation of powers issues.
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